- PUBLISHED ONLINE
- 5 MAY 2016
Sir Paul Smith owns colour. The iconic British fashion designer talks ideas, ants and burgundy paint jobs on a drive in his bespoke Defender.
After a couple of hours in Sir Paul Smith’s company, you walk away with a jauntier view of the world. His infectious sense of “why not?” lingers, pervading your thoughts.
Life is not to be taken too seriously – it’s there to be enjoyed and to fascinate. It’s this positive energy that has helped propel him from owning one boutique in Nottingham to a privately owned empire of 265 stores across 83 countries worldwide, including 28 Paul Smith Collection shops in Japan alone. I’m waiting for Paul on a dark rainy day in his London Covent Garden HQ. He’s going to take us for a ride in the one-off Land Rover Defender he collaborated on. I’ve been shown into the showroom where his latest collection hangs. He’s known for his playful use of colour, and neither the Defender nor the clothes disappoint.
I love the practicality of this vehicle. It’s attracted everyone from farmers to the Forces.
The menswear features yellow Chelsea boots, blue brothel creepers, dusty pink blazers, orange raincoats, a beautiful cashmere coat in shocking baby bubblegum pink, a lavender suit, viridian green trousers and ant motif trousers, tie and jumper. The car has a similar coat of many colours – 27 on the exterior alone – although it’s more subtle. Paul bounds in on long legs just as I’m trying on a pair of big silver sunglasses and he guffaws as they get tangled in my hair as I try to whip them off.
This would not happen with some designers. “Alright!” he says. “Let’s go.” We thread our way through a corridor full of visiting fashion buyers. He shakes hands with all of them, remembers the names of half of them, and has a personal joke or quip with about a third. Then we’re on the street blinking in the rain, looking at the Defender before we get in and join the Covent Garden traffic.
TALK US THROUGH PAUL SMITH’S DEFENDER
I was so excited to work with the Defender because I’ve had a long wheelbase one at my place in Italy for many years. I love the practicality of this vehicle. It’s attracted everyone from farmers to the Forces. I thought it would be very amusing to do the panels in different colours, almost as if you’d replaced bits over the years and the colour they had in the yard that day was burgundy or grey. There are also very fluorescent colours on the car, referring to the fact that they’re used as emergency vehicles. It all reflects the honest history of the Defender. This car just works.
So many cars now are full of modern technology, which a lot of people don’t ever really use – and in my case don’t know how to use! This extends to very basic things. I travel almost every week and in some hotels you can’t work the telephone system or the lights or the curtains. With the Defender, it just works. You switch the lights on [he demonstrates]… and off. Click [he demonstrates], and the door locks. You pull the handbrake up and it works [he doesn’t demonstrate this as we’re now motoring down Kingsway in Holborn].
And if you have a little bash on the corner and damage a light, there are two screws and you can take it off and put a new one on. I love it. It’s very British. Everyone who’s tried to do similar things has rounded them off too much or put little pieces on them that are decorative rather than utilitarian.
YOU ORIGINALLY WANTED TO BE A RACING CYCLIST… IF YOU HAD CONTINUED, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING NOW?
Yeah, I fell into fashion – literally! I raced to the age of 18 when I had my accident. I wasn’t really good enough or brave enough to be a professional cyclist – so I probably would have ended up as a photographer. My dad was an amateur photographer and he gave me a camera when I was 11. It was my first brush with creativity. But instead I have a lovely job that’s taken me around the world and I have a lovely day every day, y’know?
FROM CYCLING TO FASHION – HOW DID THAT HAPPEN?
I’d been in hospital for three months. When I got out I started going to this pub and met all the kids from the local art school. It was so fascinating. I discovered the world of painters, music and fashion and started working with one of these students who was opening a little boutique in Nottingham. All I wanted to do was be in a creative world. Then I met my girlfriend – now my wife – Pauline. She’d studied fashion at the Royal College of Art and I learnt about fashion design through her. She said, you’ve got so much energy and so many ideas – why don’t you open your own shop?
We opened this tiny little shop and we thought that would be it. People often ask me, when did you think you’d made it? To be honest, it was never like that. We just did a little bit better, year after year. We started selling in London, then in France and now we’re in 83 countries. There was never this determination in me that I’d have a business around the world or be internationally well known. I didn’t do it with a passion for wealth – just a strong passion about life itself.
YOU GOT MARRIED AND STARTED IN BUSINESS REALLY YOUNG. DO YOU THINK YOU MISSED OUT ON YOUR YOUTH?
The years before I met Pauline were pretty wild times – there were fantastic bands to see. It was a very rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. And then at the age of 21, I inherited this family – Pauline had two children, two Afghan hounds and two cats. But we were a very modern family – nothing stopped us – we’d go to gigs with the children, go on backpacking holidays to Greece. It was very different from my parents’ generation.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE MOVING FROM NOTTINGHAM?
I came down to London in the 1960s and it was fantastic – I got to know Zeppelin and the Beatles and the Stones and Pink Floyd. It was a very hippy time. I got to know Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page very well – I’ve just done a new project with him. I got to know David Bowie very well, too. We dress Jake Bugg now – he’s from Nottingham, too. Sport and music are two things that have always been with me.
ARE YOU A DESIGNER OR A BUSINESSMAN?
Actually, what’s been helpful with the longevity of Paul Smith is I’ve never been really fantastic at design and I’ve never been fantastic as a businessman. I’m sort of OK at both. Starting a business when you’re 21 years of age, you soon fast-track into understanding about paying rent and invoicing and ordering fabric and opening at 10am and closing at 6pm, as well as designing. I’ve continued that balance through the years. I’m the owner of the business, and I’m also the designer and the boss. I hope I’m not autocratic, but I am very hands-on because I think it’s necessary to use my experience. We have this little sentence at work – you can’t do it without doing it.
SO PAUL SMITH IS PAUL SMITH?
Yeah! In the office they often say something is “very Paul Smith”, which is rather odd! I called my company Paul Smith because at the time all the shops around the world had strange names like Doll’s House or Birdcage. So using my name was a practical way of letting people know about me. It’s still an individually owned, private company. We’ve fought off all the companies who’ve tried to eat us over the years. So far, so good…
DESCRIBE YOUR CHARACTER
I’m blessed with being a very positive person, which I hope I’ve inherited from my father. He was a charismatic and funny guy. Pauline has helped me keep my feet on the ground. I’m still the boy she met when I was 21. I suppose the bad good thing – or the good bad thing – is that I’ve got the concentration span of an ant! And there are ants in my new collection… They never sit still, that’s for sure! I’ve got boundless energy and ideas. The least of my problems is ideas. I’ve always promoted individuality, a strong spirit and doing things differently. You can be as classic or as playful as you want. That’s what I wanted to do with the Defender. Respect the wonderful vehicle it is, but give it a sense of fun – really thinking it through for its function and its history.
IS IT FAIR TO SAY THERE’S NOT REALLY A PAUL SMITH ‘LOOK’; YOU’RE MORE AN ENABLER TO HELP PEOPLE EXPRESS THEMSELVES…
I appeal to this huge range of people – but then some of the top magazines say: “You’re too general and you don’t focus”. The thing about Paul Smith clothes is you wear them, they don’t wear you. There’s a simplicity that also appeals to me in the Defender. Form follows function – and that sort of function is something I desire more and more around the world. It’s been brilliant working on the Defender – such a joy to be asked and a privilege to have my own Defender at the end of this vehicle’s fantastic era.
- PUBLISHED ONLINE
- 5 MAY 2016